There are many spiritual paths that speak to the idea of not being caught up in the material world. In fact, most of them do at some level or another.
It is, however, from Buddhism that we find the most direct approach to this concept. Included in the backbone of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths, is the law of impermanence. The Dalai Lama says this about it:
‘Everything is changing from moment to moment, constantly. This process of momentary change is not due to a secondary condition that arises to destroy it, but rather the very cause that led a thing to arise is also the cause of its destruction. In other words, within the cause of its origin lies the cause of its cessation.’
We might understand this in a very simple context. The seed that brings the flower into being also contains within it the catabolic process that will lead to its decay and death. We then see how attachment to form creates suffering.
We move through our lives thinking, “When this happens I will be happy” or “When I attain that circumstance, my suffering will stop.” This kind of thinking is what keeps us trapped in endless cycles of unhappiness, because the reality is that once the thing happens or is attained, something new arises in our minds as the carrot on a stick that tells us we can only be happy when ____________ (fill in the blank).
In Taoism many of the texts (beautiful poems worth reading for their own sake) speak of being like water. Water is fluid and flowing. It moves over and around and through. Water can wear away mountains and bring new life to a barren desert. But when water stops and pools with no new influx, no change, its stagnates and becomes polluted and unhealthy. The flexibility of water is another clue for us to follow.
To bring this into context in our own lives, lets take a look at examples of personal changes now occurring.
“Breakdown or Breakthrough” says Zen Master Osho. When everything is in flux, and the foundations upon which you’ve built your life crumble, whether through illness or loss of job or home or a loved one, our inner spirit has a choice on how we might react.
Breakdown is, “My world has come to an end. I’ve lost things that matter greatly to me, and there is nothing for me now.” We fall into depression, anxiety or nihilism. In this state we have no hope, no energy and are paralyzed in our ability to meet life.
Breakthrough takes the same situation of loss and approaches it with an open mind and heart. “This thing has happened and I’ve encountered great losses, but the Universe in its state of constant change has just made room in my life for newness to enter.” We can then open our hearts and trust that new opportunities will arise. That what is happening now may be very painful, but if we meet it with eyes and heart open, we are not, as the Zen Masters say, “tossed away.” We can realize that this state of loss is as temporary and impermanent as the previous state of “having” was.
Recently a dear friend of mine (and husband to Laura, owner of On the Wings of Dreams) Jeff, suffered a severe blow to his health. Out of nowhere he contracted a rare blood disorder that put his life at risk. Fortunately, the care of good doctors and the incredible support of the “best wife in the world” (his words), plus the reaching out of so many friends and family with love and compassion brought him through this difficult and dangerous time. Oh, and let us not forget Jeff’s own loving and courageous spirit! That was integral, too!
Here’s what Jeff brought away from his experience.
Since my recent health issue, several people have asked me “How has your life changed?” My response is typically “I don’t know…yet.” Do I feel different, emotionally, spiritually, morally? Sure, I am grateful to be alive, and for this I give thanks to anyone who will listen – family, doctors, friends, co-workers, the dog – but has my outlook on life really changed? Sure, during my time at home, I see things in my life – like how little I previously did around the house, or how foul and out of shape my physical body has gotten, or how little time I actually spend with friends – that needs tweaking, but is that a factor of simply having time at home to see, or a result of my illness driving a desire to shake up my entire philosophy on life? Couldn’t this episode simply be another life experience – albeit a drastic one – meant to teach me where my true priorities lie? But does this make me a different or better person, or simply a more eager listener?
Those of you who know me well, know that I am not one to dwell on the past.
No one can change what has happened, so why expend energy trying or worrying about “why me?” Rather, spend this energy focusing on what the past is trying to teach us, make the necessary adjustments, and move on. We all have the same potential for goodness and happiness; sometimes, it is just a matter of listening to life’s experiences and not repeating the past that makes the difference. Don’t block the river waiting for the boat to cross; the river will only find a new path, and not necessarily one to your liking.
Jeff’s take on impermanence is an important one and has two facets. First, his gratitude for the positive aspects of his experience are obvious. Gratitude, like forgiveness, has a way of healing our hearts, and creating honest exchanges of love and compassion between us. It is an appropriate response to having come through a difficult and dangerous time, whole and well. Gratitude isn’t trying to hold onto anything, instead it is about giving and receiving.
The second aspect is perhaps more challenging for most of us, but just as vital. He is not picking the experience apart in self-pity or continuing to live through his illness in his imagination. Instead, he is letting go of the past – bringing the lessons of it with him into his life, but not holding on. This letting go of the past can be very difficult, but we must learn to do it, that we may live our lives fully engaged, with happiness and joy. Our focus needs to be on the present. The Now.
I think this quote is from Deepak Chopra:
The past is history,
The future a mystery,
This moment is a gift.
Jeff doesn’t know yet just how his recent trip to the borderlands will effect his life in the long term, but he continues to move forward each day. This reminds me of the old Zen saying, “Only go straight, don’t know.” That saying has helped me through many a challenging life passage.
Another friend lost her home recently, and through trust and perseverance another was found. Of course the in between space was devastating, but through it all this friend worked hard to keep her trust alive and to move through these difficult changes with grace. Yes, she was afraid and yes she shed her share of tears, but that is simply part of the human journey. It is never all happiness, all the time. The most difficult times can be the breakthrough that strengthens our spirits, deepens our compassion and reawakens us to the joys and wonders of life.
I can’t say that I enjoyed going through my own dark nights of the soul.
In the middle of them I sometimes could not see the light. In other words, I had no idea how situations would resolve themselves, or how my suffering would ever end.
Like so many others, it was the support of friends and family that sustained me through the worst of it. The transformations that eventually arose came from the simple daily practice of not attaching to any sort of circumstances in order to be happy, and turning to my own heart to generate love, hope and joy in the middle of the worst of times.
I learned to smile for its own sake, not because of exterior conditions.
As we experience the many changes and upheavals that are part and parcel of our world, we can help the flame of our spirits thrive. We can reach out to others to give and receive and we can remain steadfast in the surety that each small thing we do elevates everyone – all beings.
We cannot always see the results of these acts of kindness and compassion, but they matter. They matter more than all the big things that we see on the television and hear on the news. They are real. They are about humanity and how we live together.
“Do not attach to outcome” is one of the main messages of Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text.
‘Detaching end from act, with act content,
The world of sense no more stain his soul
Than waters mar th’ enameled lotus-leaf.’
We have no control over how things will turn out. We do, however, have control over our own state of being as we meet each new challenge with that noble, loving spirit that is the best part of us.
In this we remake our world anew.
In this we are transformed.
In this we find…..